2017 is Canada’s Sesquicentennial (150 years) and the Centennial of the NHL which Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL Board intend to celebrate all through the year. In 1917 the NHL was an all-Canadian affair. 50 years later in 1967, there were 4 American teams to 2 Canadian and then 10 American to 2 Canadian. Today the score is Am 31 Can 7.
Should there be more NHL Canadian teams? Unquestionably. Why are there no more? Two of the answers are obvious. The United States is more wealthy and has a larger population. Fair enough. Unless there is a dramatic shift in climate accompanied by a mass migration north, or a war of conquest by Canada, the United States is bound to have more teams. But only 7 Canadian teams. Only 7?
Are any more Canadian cities feasible right now? Quebec is the 7th largest city in Canada and built a beautiful new arena but they got turned down by the NHL in 2016. Hamilton has a suitable NHL arena which the city council will modify further if they are awarded a team. There is the possibility of second Montreal and third southern Ontario teams too. And in the long run, a Saskatchewan team probably located in Saskatoon. Right now there is the possibility of 4 new teams, making a total of 11.
Quebec (twice under different names) and Hamilton were once members of the NHL. So was a second Montreal team, the Maroons. And when the NHL was competing against the champion of the western leagues, Western Canada Hockey League, and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (which also contained franchises in Portland and Seattle [the first American city to win the Stanley Cup], American cities that somehow still do not have an NHL franchise) for the Stanley Cup, franchises from Victoria, New Westminster, Regina, Saskatoon, and Moose Jaw were competing at the highest professional level. In 1907, the little town of Kenora won the Stanley Cup. That is at least 9 more Canadian franchises in professional hockey history. It proves that professional hockey at the highest level has shrunk in Canada, not grown. It confirms that Canada is under-represented in the present NHL.
The first NHL American team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the league until 1924. Big money and then the Depression whittled the number of Canadian teams down to two by 1940. But bad economic times, an increase in operating expenses to own and run a professional hockey team, and a difference in population do not tell the complete story of why there is only 7 teams in the present NHL. Three ugly Canadian traits, greed, elitism, and bad faith do.
When the first expansion of the league occurred in 1967, it was assumed that Vancouver would be one of the new teams. But Vancouver’s franchise became the St. Louis Blues, much to the howling of fans right across Canada. It seems that the franchise owners from Toronto and Montreal did not want to share Canadian television money or the Canadian market with anyone else. Vancouver would finally get its franchise three years later in 1970. But the ugly pattern of excluding new Canadian teams led by existing Canadian franchise owners had begun.
It is a myth, held by many Canadians to this day that NHL American franchise owners led by NHL American leaders John Ziegler, and Gary Bettman are anti-Canadian and do not want more Canadian franchises. Nothing could be further from the truth. At every point in NHL expansion history, we see Canadians showing bad faith, no generosity, and thwarting and excluding other Canadians.
After seeing the difficulty of adding new Canadian franchises to the NHL by the Vancouver episode, other rich Canadians abandoned the idea of buying their way into the NHL. Instead with American partners, they sought to compete against the NHL by starting a new league, the WHA. The NHL franchises of the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and the would-be-returned Quebec Nordiques were born.
The Canadian franchise owners of the WHA had a very different attitude to adding new Canadian teams than their NHL counterparts. The best attendance for the WHA came from Canadian cities. The very survival of the WHA depended on them. Edmonton so believed in the Oilers that they built the modern Northlands Coliseum before the NHL-WHA merger which would be their home until 2016. At one time Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto would briefly have WHA teams. There would even be a Canadian division set up.
As player salaries skyrocketed, there was pressure to merge the leagues. The main opponents were Canadian Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke of the Los Angeles Kings. So Canadian franchises were excluded from the NHL by Canadians until 1980 when the leagues merged. Today both Edmonton and Winnipeg are in the NHL and Quebec desperately wants to return.
After the merger, Calgary got its team the following year when the Flames became the first of two Atlanta franchises to flee to Canada. Hamilton built a modern arena and should have got a team until the bidder, Tim Donut, made the mistake of questioning the NHL’s expansion terms, and a returned Hamilton became a returned Ottawa Senators.
But in the bad economic times of the 1990s, Winnipeg and Quebec which had both refused to build modern, adequate arenas when they joined the NHL and tried to get by on the cheap, could no longer be feasible NHL franchises. No new Canadian owners believed in the teams or new arenas. This combination of bad economic times and bad faith would result in the shift of the Jets to Phoenix and the Nordiques to Denver.
Elitism, bad faith, and exclusion still keep Canadian NHL franchises to a minimum. They are traits that have been around since the beginning of Canadian history. New France was a society in which everyone knew his place. There was the Governor, Bishop, Intendant, a few appointed public officials, and seigneurs at the top and the mass of habitants at the bottom. The only escape was to become a renegade coureur de bois fur trader.
When the Conservative Loyalists fled from the United States after the American Revolution they simply created a British branch with these traits. After the War Of 1812, they passed legislation making it more difficult for Americans to immigrate to Canada and own land. In 1837, two rebellions were fought against elitist, oligarchic government in the two sections of Canada.
I have seen these traits in Canada almost every day of my life. In almost every job I would ever have in Canada, there would be somebody picking on somebody else. People who had positions would use their power to exclude others from promotions, salary increases and impose penalties making peoples’ lives miserable. The ugliest incident I would see occurred a few years ago. Ask the family of Rehtaeh Parsons who committed suicide what it is like when a group of elitist, exclusionists decide that someone “is not one of them”.
As for the NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman turned down Quebecor’s bid to bring back the Nordiques without a second thought because its owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a known supporter of the provincial party Parti Quebecois which has twice tried to take Quebec out of Canada by referendum and passed discriminatory legislation against minority languages, made inappropriate, public, racist remarks about one of the NHL Board Of Governors, Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens. The NHL will not tolerate a public racist on its Board of Governors. Peladeau destroyed the dream of every Quebec Nordiques fan right across Canada by his exclusionary, elitist remarks.
The main reason why Hamilton or other potential second and third southern Ontario NHL franchise cities like second Toronto, Oshawa, Kitchener, and London do not have a team is the opposition of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres to having new, competitive franchises in their market. Other regions like New York-New York-New Jersey, Los Angeles-Anaheim, plus every similar situation in the NFL, NBA and MLB have managed to work something out. But in implacable Canada, all these potential NHL franchise cities remain excluded. The same elitist opposition will probably show itself should anyone try to bring back the Montreal Maroons. And of course should a future bid for a Saskatoon franchise or anywhere else in Canada appear, there will be grounds for exclusion on the basis of sharing television money.
In the United States, Bill Foley, the new owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, merely pays some money and signs a few papers to become an NHL franchise owner. In Canada, somebody’s rump has to be kissed repeatedly over and over. Is it any wonder why Gary Bettman and the NHL are reluctant to put new franchises in Canada? On the contrary, they would be fully justified on turning their backs forever on a country that consistently raises objections and opposition, shows little faith and refuses to respond in moments of crisis as what happened to Winnipeg and Quebec in the 1990s, and shows little generosity or willingness to share.
So happy 150th birthday Canada. Once you had the majority of teams competing for the Stanley Cup. But today it is 7. Only 7. Ask yourself why.